Google's Berkeley County data center campus in South Carolina is permitted to use up to 549 million gallons of groundwater each year for cooling.
Earlier this year, Charleston Water System and Berkeley County Water and Sanitation signed an agreement to pump five million gallons of treated surface water, some of which is available for Google's data center. "We plan to receive some of that water from BCWS, and the rest will be for benefit of the County. It's not a Google project, nor is it solely servicing Google's data center," a Google spokesperson told DCD. The pipe for that water has not yet been built.
"Our groundwater permit provides both backup supply and a diversified source to prepare for any worst-case scenario," Google said in a 'fact sheet.' Prior to the new permit, Google could access just 182.5 million gallons of groundwater annually. It said it needs access to more water as it builds out a $600m expansion at the site.
The final decision was made by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), South Carolina's highest decision making body regarding public health and the environment. According to the conditions tied to the approval, Google must adhere to the stipulated amount of water it can use or it could lose its license.
The permit expires in 2023.
In South Carolina, one billion gallons of water is used each day including around 333 million gallons of groundwater.
Groundwater is pulled up from the aquifer, a permeable layer of rock that allows the rainwater to pass through, this is then pumped up via wells.
Currently, more than 11 million gallons of groundwater are pumped up by wells in the region around Berkeley County every day.
However, this permit would render Google the third largest aquifer user in the area, should it choose to.
Concerns surrounding this news is due to how much groundwater exists in the region, and how quickly the deep underground reservoirs refill.
Water pressure at the wells has dropped steadily, suggesting the rate that rainwater percolates down to the aquifers is slower than the rate it is being drawn up.
Google and other business interests, including the private Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, said they were pleased with DHEC’s decision.
However, this news has also been met with criticism: Clay Duffie, the manager of the Mount Pleasant Waterworks opposed the permit.
In an article published by The State, he said: "I don’t have a beef against Google itself, but I don’t think it is appropriate to use pristine groundwater for cooling computers, versus providing that water for people.
"We are concerned about the long term, safe and sustainable yield of that aquifer."
Two weeks ago, an advisory committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted to deny the permit.
At the time, Emily Cedzo of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League told the Post and Courier that the league would assess its options if DHEC went ahead.
We have updated this article to clarify that Google only has access to a portion of BCWS' five million gallons of surface water supply.